Direct Cash Transfers

Wading a bit far afield from education, but I’m enough of an international development geek to feel compelled to share this HBR article on direct cash transfers and GiveDirectly. Truly remarkable that it took this long for an organization like GiveDirectly to emerge, even given the lack of an m-Pesa-like delivery vehicle until recently. Love the idea of DCTs as an index-fund benchmark for the performance of ‘actively-manged’ aid.

Can’t wait to see what the team at GD is able to build over the next five years. It’s really exciting to think about how it could be transformative in places where you’ve got m-Pesa-like vehicle but poor governance, crappy NGO sector, etc.

And with the biometric ID system emerging in India . . .

Of MOOCs and elite college brands

Two different takes on this topic in the last few days from a couple of our favorite observers, one from Kevin Carey and one from University Ventures.

Carey essentially argues that the return on investment elite colleges get from MOOCs is enhanced status (because it promotes warm-fuzzy feeling toward them and customers get to directly engage with their quality content), so maybe they don’t need to worry as much about financial return / MOOC ‘business model.’ Though even if you believe that as a partial explanation of what might sustain MOOCs in the long run, it doesn’t address how the third-party MOOC platforms sustain themselves (unless you believe that it’s the university-funded platforms a la EdX that will be the survivors).

UV argues that MOOC providers should take a page out of Univ of Cape Town / GetSmarter’s book in South Africa, using an elite college brand name to extend into non-competitive online offerings that culminate in certificates of perceived job market value & relevance.

Of course, all of this assumes that there’s rational thinking going on among elite college administrators. To the extent there are signs of rational thinking going on now, it’s mostly of the variety ‘see what happened to that lady down at UVa? yeah, don’t want that to happen to me. think i’ll hop this bandwagon’

Love this dig at NYU – Abu Dhabi, Yale-Singapore, etc. in the Carey piece: “You can open a branch campus overseas, but there are only so many autocratic petro-states to go around.”


Credit hour: heads up, buddy, it tolls for thee

Yesterday Arne’s crew threw a 1-2 combo at the credit hour, approving SNHU’s direct-assessment, competency-based College for America program and issuing a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter effectively saying ‘bring it on’ to other higher ed institutions that want to follow in SNHU’s path. The latter represents a big change from a previous letter the Feds had issued two years before that seemed to reinforce the credit hour as the backbone of any Title IV-eligible program. The College for America program will offer degrees in a way that has exactly zero relationship to the credit hour or seat time.

The news attracted some attention, though not nearly as much as it deserves. As others have argued, the real incipient revolution in higher ed is not the much-ballyhooed MOOC explosion but the quieter dawn of competency-based education (CBE). Given all the attention to higher ed these days, this could have been a front-page NYT story.

Commentators have rightly focused on one major implication of CBE: it will put the focus on skill and knowledge acquisition rather than arbitrary seat-time requirements and thereby enable improvements in effectiveness and efficiency. Our friends at Innosight have laid out a helpful analogy in talking about this shift, relating a story from Toyota’s manufacturing operations about the difference between fixed time and fixed skill-acquisition goals. University Ventures has suggested that “in time, the shift from ‘clock hours’ or ‘seat time’ to competency-based education will significantly reduce time-to-completion and increase completion rates and return on investment.”

But in all the focus on this aspect of yesterday’s news, many are missing another big implication. This full-monty version of CBE–ie, direct assessment–is another huge step in the unbundling of higher ed: it unbundles the degree itself.

What we’re doing at Kepler helps illustrate. Our students–initially in Rwanda and eventually in more countries–will work toward direct-assessment degrees from US university partners but not by taking courses from those US universities. We create the college experience ourselves. We run the campus, hire the teachers, design the curriculum, and so forth. The US university partner will set the goalposts (in the form of a skills pyramid/rubric and a set of performance tasks & assessments tied to the rubric) and supplies the referees who decide when the ball has crossed the line. But because the credit hour and seat time at the US university are irrelevant, we will have total curricular and instructional flexibility.

So you now have two institutions in the mix — Kepler running the teaching college, and a US university running assessments and conferring degrees.

Of course, we’re further unbundling by choosing not to hire any research professors or PhD lecturers, and instead relying on MOOCs and other online offerings for lecture content. We’ll use online textbook materials as well. Wherever possible, we want to start incorporating promising adaptive learning software. But we will directly manage what we think is most essential to learning: designing the curriculum and creating the active learning experiences that ultimately matter much more than passively watching lectures; hiring/training/coaching teachers and tutors; selecting and supporting students; and developing partnerships with employers to enable students to learn on the job. In that sense we haven’t unbundled everything. Still, Kepler will be one of the most unbundled higher ed programs in the world resulting in an accredited U.S. degree.

Interestingly, the unbundling opens a potential pathway to regulatory clearance for Kepler as we expand into new countries. Since Kepler is not the degree-granting institution, we may not need to jump through all the usual hoops that are imposed on new universities. As we’ve written before, these hoops are often pretty ridiculous. Though it looks and feels like a college from a student’s perspective, Kepler can position itself as a coaching service for official registration / regulation purposes, helping students work toward an (effectively online) degree from a different institution that isn’t operating a local campus in the country in question.

Competency-based degrees don’t solve the quality problem in higher ed. Ultimately, the extent to which they help with quality will depend in turn on the rigor and thoughtfulness of the competency pyramids and the assessments used as the gating mechanisms for degrees. But CBE is a long-overdue enabler of quality improvement. It shifts the focus from what shouldn’t matter (time) to what should (competencies), and by unbundling it makes the playing field much more accessible for innovative entrants like Kepler.

California Higher Ed Gives Credit for Online Courses

According to a recent NY TImes article by Tamar Lewen, California’s public colleges and universities have recently voted to give credit to students taking faculty-approved online courses in cases where those courses were oversubscribed. While this may be a “bottom line” issue for a severely budget-challenged higher ed system, it’s amazing news for those of us who are championing the demise of the credit hour. This decision is also cracking open the market for MOOC providers- another excellent outcome. We need more competition to create higher quality video content across a wider range of subject areas.

This quote from the president of the California Faculty Association sums up the perennially weak counter-argument for MOOCs, “This whole online thing is not well-vetted yet,” she said. “There’s a sort of mania for massive online courses right now, but there’s no good evidence that they work for all students.” Yes, because we know that the traditional higher ed approach is really working for all students (sarcasm). She goes on to complain that MOOCs are giving away “the job of educating our students.” Well, if overcrowding, ridiculous student debt load and low employability are the outcomes from our current higher ed model, I say bring it on. But let’s not stop there. We can have our MOOCs and eat them too… I mean, we can have students watch their MOOCs and still have access to high quality educators if we shift precious class meeting time to flipped classroom models where those educators can actually engage students in problem solving and critical thinking because students have sat through the lecture outside of class time.

So, let’s not just stop at opening up online courses for credit- let’s redesign our higher ed teaching models to make the most of all of our resources. Next big challenge? Creating an inexpensive model for seminars for those California students (and more!) who are taking the online courses with no access to profs… stay tuned as KEPLER tries a few models on for size.

Don’t Panic or: How to Survive an Avalanche

The destructive, unpredictable, landscape-altering power of an avalanche is the metaphor Sir Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly, and Saad Rizvi aptly use to capture the forces bearing down on the global higher education in their new report. They apply the metaphor well, warning the establishment that the only thing one cannot do in higher education currently, as when in the path of an avalanche, is stand still.

It is worth extending the metaphor further to illuminate two other realities facing the field. First, once an avalanche hits, struggling is not only futile, it is self-defeating. Thrashing only causes you to sink into the snow and suffocate more quickly. It is hard not to think about this grim phenomenon when reading about second and third-tier colleges in the US taking out unsustainable debt to construct gleaming, educationally-irrelevant buildings in a desperate bid to climb the ladder toward the Harvard apogee. Their panicked spending will only cause them to sink faster when the avalanche does hit them at last. Only inspired leadership (as in strategically evolving institutions like Southern New Hampshire University) or truly determined rescue will save them from extinction.

Second, avalanches do not fall uniformly. They follow the contours of the land. And in higher education, those contours are largely shaped by power and money. One of the principal reasons higher education has resisted change for so long is that is deeply connected to – and fiercely protected by – the elite. This is particularly evident in the developing world. African countries top the World Bank’s list of government higher education spending as a proportion of per capita GDP. They also spend disproportionately on higher versus secondary and primary education. As I wrote earlier, Kenya’s presidential candidates recently stumped aggressively about increased higher education spending despite the system still only applying to a few percent of the population. All this is because the fate of higher education institutions directly affects the elite (as alumni and employees) and their children.

Those building disruptive new higher education models would be remiss to underestimate this reality. The avalanche is still building and the clearer the signs of its inevitable arrival, the more nervous elites will wield their influence to reshape the land to protect their interests. As the legislative chaos in India shows, regulatory regimes may become less amenable to innovation before they become more so. Anachronistic and inefficient institutions may continue to provide competition by securing special protections and subsidies. Before planning where to build on the post-avalanche landscape, we and others must read the land carefully.

Power to the People

The authors articulately describe the ways in which higher education is being unbundled and the new imperatives this creates. They also wisely stop short of prognosticating about which models will thrive after the avalanche: the change is too broad and too early. However, there are two elements of their analysis that are worth dwelling on further.

First, for such sweeping change of a multi-trillion dollar industry, the specific innovations and new models they highlight are few, relatively early stage, and/or limited in geography and scope. They caution that their intent was anecdote to confirm trends, not a catalogue. But our own extensive landscaping over the past months confirms this relative dearth of innovation compared to the magnitude of the opportunity and need. The implication is clear: much more experimentation is needed. Unbundling multiplies the number of distinct models that are possible and needed, but there are only a handful of prominent experiments in each segment currently. And, as usual, the developing world is underserved despite its potential: higher education in low and middle-income countries will account for more than three-quarters of students globally and is at least a half a trillion-dollar market.

Second, the five broad models of post-avalanche universities the report outlines will not have equal roles in the market. The authors are right that elite universities will remain. But, by definition, they – and the often equally high-cost niche institutions – will continue to serve a small fragment of the population. Their fate is not the most important or interesting question. Rather it is the various sub-segments of the “mass university” model, which will dominate the market in terms of both enrollment and revenue, that should be watched closely.

We would propose to break the mass model down into along a number of dimensions that are defined by consumer (or in Clayton Christensen’s terms, the jobs that students, their families, and employers want the university to do). These dimensions include:

  1. Intensity of in-person support: All post-avalanche institutions will have some online component. But the market share captured by purely online models over the next 20 years is the pivotal question. This will be determined by what premium consumers are willing to pay for experiences that will continue to uniquely in-person.
  2. Employment Linkages: Universities will also be differentiated by how they respond to consumer desire for greater employment relevance. This will be by both intensity of the linkage (from the nearly hands-off approach of most current US institutions to nearly vocational) and, most importantly, how they produce the practical skills and experience employers clamor for.
  3. Level of Support – Thiel Fellowships are great solutions for some, but not for many. Others will benefit most from – and seek out – institutions that almost resemble “no excuses” charter schools in the structure and support they provide.

There are undoubtedly other dimensions that will become clearer as the pressures build. With Kepler, we will be intensively experimenting within each of these dimensions until we arrive at a model that meets what students and employers need and want and that can be scaled to rapidly reach the millions of young people that cannot access quality post-secondary education in the developing world. That conclusion may look different in each country and, indeed as the authors highlight, each city. We hope many more will join us in this experimentation and avoid being swept away.

Is socialization the killer feature of the American college system?

Danah Boyd has a great post on how Facebook is upending college dorm life before it even begins:

It’s high time we recognize that college isn’t just about formalized learning and skills training, but also a socialization process with significant implications for the future.  The social networks that youth build in college have long-lasting implications for youth’s future prospects.  One of the reasons the American college experience is so valuable is because it often produces diverse networks that enable future opportunities.  This is also precisely what makes elite colleges elite; the networks that are built through these institutions end up shaping many aspects of power.  When less privileged youth get to know children of powerful families, new pathways of opportunity and tolerance are created.  But when youth use Facebook to maintain existing insular networks, the potential for increased structural inequity is great.

The entire thing is worth a read.